Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Shevardnadze faces crisis as mob storms parliament

AP AND REUTERS , TBILIST, GEORGIA

The press office of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze denounced as an "armed coup d'etat" the seizure of parliament by opposition activists yesterday.

Shevardnadze vowed not to resign as he was hustled out of the parliament building after opposition supporters broke in and seized the speaker's podium.

"I will not resign. I will resign when the presidential term expires, according to the constitution," Shevardnadze said before he was driven away from the parliament, accompanied by armed guards in riot gear.

Shevardnadze was whisked away after opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili led hundreds of his supporters into the chamber. They overturned desks and chairs and leapt onto the podium just after the president officially convened the body. It was not immediately clear where he was taken.

"The velvet revolution has taken place in Georgia," Saakashvili said, as the hall applauded him. "We are against violence."

Saakashvili ordered the pro-government lawmakers to leave the hall, and handed over the speaker's podium to opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze.

The move came as tens of thousands of opposition protesters marched in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. They have pledged not to leave until Shevardnadze is ousted.

Earlier yesterday, Shevardnadze said that he was ready for dialogue with the opposition, but "without any ultimatums. Parliament was elected and ... parliament should begin work today."

This poverty-stricken ex-Soviet republic had slid into its biggest political crisis in years after the Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, which the opposition and many foreign observers claimed were rigged. The election has fueled popular anger against Shevardnadze's government and led this impoverished nation into its biggest political crisis in years.

Both pro- and anti-Shevardnadze forces had vowed to avoid bloodshed but also refused to budge from their increasingly intractable positions.

Police, covered in body armor and holding shields, have been posted in front of all the main government buildings.

"We are giving the president one last chance," said protest leader Mikhail Saakashvili, as he addressed thousands of his supporters on Freedom Square earlier yesterday. "Within one hour, either he comes to the people or the people will come to him."

The crowd, which has swelled by the minute, carried placards reading, "Georgia without Shevardnadze" and "Shevardnadze, your century was the 20th. Now it is the 21st."

Pro-Shevardnadze forces are camped out in front of the parliament, along with heavily armed police but the police gave little resistance as the opposition advanced.

As tension escalated, Shevardnadze appeared to soften his position. He acknowledged that there had been some breaches in the election, which the pro-Shevardnadze party won according to the official results.

"About 8 to 10 percent of the ballots were invalid," he said, but added that this should be dealt with in the courts.

US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the election results reflect "massive vote fraud" in some regions and "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people." On Friday, the State Department called on Georgia's government to conduct an independent investigation into the results.

Georgia's top security official, Tedo Dzhaparidze, also acknowledged Friday that the vote -- which independent exit pollers said the opposition appeared to have won -- had been tarnished by fraud. He said a new parliament should be considered temporary, until a new vote can be held.

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